In recent years, more of Hawaii’s hikes have been closed to the public. While once upon a time, trails like Mariner’s Ridge (also known as Kaluanui Ridge), Makapuu Tom Tom and Kamehame Ridge were accessible to the public, that’s no longer the case.
The reason can be traced back to Mother’s Day in 1999, when eight hikers were killed and 50 more were injured due to a massive rockslide at Sacred Falls State Park on Oahu. This was a publicly accessible trail at the time of the tragedy. Lawsuits were filed and the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. The state paid $8.56 million to the families and the hike has been closed ever since.
“That was the tipping point of the start of closing trails,” Ralph Valentino, a spokesperson for the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Corporation, told SFGATE. The nonprofit is a vocal advocate for the trails, and about a year ago, counted 29 trails that have been closed in the past 10 years.
“If the judge would’ve gone the other way and said, ‘Look, I’m sorry. If the state physically did anything to you on purpose, we would pay you. But no, you went and saw natural beauty and an Act of God occurred, and the state isn’t responsible for that,’” Valentino continued, “if that’s how he would’ve judged, then we would be hiking on almost all of these trails today.”
Valentino said he doesn’t think it’s fair that other places, such as the national parks or even swimming in the ocean, don’t have the same legal issues to the extent that trails do.
“If someone goes to the beach, they go swimming and a shark eats them, the beach is closed for one to maybe three days and it reopens,” he said. “Why doesn’t that happen up in the mountains where the trails are?”
As a result of the Sacred Falls case, the state created a formal signage program to provide the state and county more protection from liability. However, with the vast amount of property the state manages, whether a trail or property has enough signage to warn of danger is a subjective matter, such as in the Sacred Falls case where there were signs, although some were missing, bent or graffitied.
Since 1999, lawsuits against the state have continued, and settlements ranging from thousands of dollars to millions have been awarded due to accidents on public land.
The precedent these judgments set has also had an effect on private landowners who have in the past given hikers access to trails on their property. Now more of them are putting up no trespassing signs and chaining gates for fear of liability should someone get injured or die on their land.
In the Hawaii Revised Statute 520, the state has the ability to negotiate or indemnify private landowners so that access can be maintained, but insufficient resources have made it a challenge.
“There’s over 280 trails on the island that are documented,” Aaron Lowe, Oahu trails and access specialist for the Department of Land and Natural Resources, told SFGATE. Lowe and his team of two full-time employees maintain and manage 48 trails on the island that are open to the public, which is about 100 miles of pathway. These do not include trails managed under other jurisdictions, such as state parks (Aiea Loop, Sacred Falls, Diamond Head, Kahana Valley and Makapuu), nor trails maintained by private landowners.
Lowe said he would really like to expand the number of trails available to the public, but his team is kept busy managing urban trails that are popular with visitors.
“We’ve had to put a lot of resources into the high use trails,” said Lowe, who manages Manoa Falls Trail, which regularly receives about 1,000 people per day. “Some of the things that are a little bit more remote, it would be nice if we could make an arrangement with the private landowner.”
Indemnification would protect the landowner against liability, but it’s never been tested, Lowe said. Landowners are uncertain whether it would truly protect them, so instead they close the trails.